Carolina Wren

Their small size and general lack of interest in seeds and feeders makes spotting a Wren in the garden more than your run of the mill day in the yard. Not that I wish to imply that Wrens are uncommon. They are pretty common in yards, or at least their songs are. If you don’t know where to look and who you are looking for, spotting a Wren could be a bit of a challenge. Following their song is always a good place to start.

One of six wrens common to the Northeastern United States, the Carolina Wren is easily the most distinct. They are the same size as their fellow Wrens and have a similar body type, including a brown body and down-curved beak. However, what sets them apart is their distinct white eyebrows. Their chest is also brighter than other Wrens, starting white toward their heads and fading into yellow halfway down their chests.

Carolina Wrens prefer good cover in bushes or shrubs, but these songbirds can’t help themselves, they keep bursting into song. Each male sings between twenty-seven and forty-one songs and the males and females have been known to sing duets. The pair will mate and remain monogamous for an entire breeding season, having two broods. Due to their need for cover, they tend to look for natural cavities in which to create a nest.

While they will occasionally eat fruit or seeds, this is rare. Their primary diet is insects. This interest in bugs makes them a common ground hunter. Look for them around leaf piles and tree roots, poking around and searching for insects.

Types of Sparrows

Once you become a bird watcher, you become aware that many facts you took for granted are not 100% accurate. For example, “call a spade a spade” or “call a sparrow a sparrow.” Not necessarily untrue. However, there are twenty-one different types of sparrows listed in my Eastern North America bird book. So “sparrow” is clearly not specific enough.

I want to take some time in this post to point out of the differences between some of the most common sparrows, so you can begin to notice them yourselves. I am going to focus on four: House Sparrows, Chipping Sparrows, Song Sparrows and White-Throated Sparrows.

The House Sparrow is the most obvious starting point. Ubiquitous, especially whenever food is out for the taking, you see them in yards, woods, parks and city streets. I have so many of the little guys in my yard at this point I think they may have started having extra broods just because of my feeders.

Male and female House Sparrows look different. The males have a whitish-gray belly with a black bib on the upper chest, flanked by a white patch on either side. The black from the bib carries up their neck to under their eyes. A gray cap sits on top of their heads, with two patches of brown running from the sides of their heads into their brown wings, back and tail feathers. The brown on their wings, back and tail is broken up with thin stripes of black.

The females are a bit more muted and boring, but if you look closely their feathers have a few secrets to share. The female’s feathers are mostly tan, with her underbelly being lighter than the feathers on her head and back. If you look closely you will notice she has a light stripe on both sides of her head which include her eyes. The wings of the female are similar to her male counterpart, being a darker brown, with stripes of white and black mixed in.

The House Sparrow is in fact not a sparrow at all. Introduced to North American from Europe in the 1850s, they are actually from the Weaver Finch family. Their populations thrived in their new home and today they can be seen throughout the United States all year long. They are also a common sight because they are not remotely scared of people. Much less skittish than other birds, they have the advantage for scavenging food in busy areas.

Food isn’t the only thing they scavenge. Their nests have been known to incorporate paper and even plastic into the weave. They usually have 4-6 eggs each nesting, with two or three broods in a season. They are at it like rabbits! They like cavities to nest in, so they are big fans of bird houses.

Chipping Sparrows are also fairly common to my yard in the summer. They visit feeders and they forage the ground around them, so you can easily spot them hopping about. One of the biggest physical differences between a Chipping Sparrow and the other three species I am discussing, is that the Chipping Sparrow is smaller. The Chipping Sparrow is five inches to the House Sparrow’s six inches and when you are that small, one inch does make a difference when it comes to aggressive behavior at the feeders.

Unlike the House Sparrow, all Chipping Sparrows look alike, regardless of gender. The Chipping Sparrow’s most defining feature is its light brown or chestnut cap. Its chest is gray and it has dark, streaked brown wings with hints of white. If you are able to see one of these little guys close enough (probably not with the naked eye) you will also notice a black stripe going across his face, in line with his beak and across his eye. This black stripe created a gray stripe above it on both sides, which separates the black from the edge of the brown cap.

Chipping Sparrows may be little, but don’t underestimate their toughness. They can survive without a drink for three weeks. They don’t try to brave a northern winter though. Instead they head to Mexico for the winter months.

Chipping Sparrows typically have about four eggs per nest and they usually have two broods each season. The female is the primary caregiver, incubating the eggs and feeding the new hatchlings. During the female’s incubation of the eggs, the male Chipping Sparrow will try to find additional mates.

Song Sparrows are a bit less common to my yard. But they do visit on occasion and I often see them and hear them on hikes. Not unlike the Red-Winged Blackbird, they are particularly partial to marshy areas and can often be found near water.

As you can image from its name, the Song Sparrow likes to sing a lot. Often their song is the best way to spot them. They are loners but they aren’t bashful. Often you will find them perched on a conspicuous branch or reed singing their hearts out. This is because they not only sing to attract a mate, but also to mark their territory. To hear the song of a Song Sparrow, click here: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/scbi/migratorybirds/education/nasongkey.pl?bird=Song+Sparrow+%281%29

Though they will visit the vicinity of a feeder, Song Sparrows rarely go to the feeder directly. Instead you will see them hopping around beneath a feeder, gleaning seeds from the ground. You will recognize the Song Sparrow by the streaks on its chest. Song Sparrows are white or cream with random short, dark brown streaks running vertically along their chest. If you look closely, you will also see a larger spot, usually near the center of their chest. Their wings are similar to those of other sparrows, brown with stripes of white and lighter brown. There is also a brown stripe on each cheek, breaking up the white on the Song Sparrow’s face.

White-Throated Sparrows are my personal favorite. They usually come to the feeder alone, and glean around on the ground looking for food. They aren’t aggressive with other birds, but neither are they intimidated. They are about the same size as the House Sparrow, and they usually won’t be pushed around. Like the Chipping Sparrow, White-Throated Sparrows head to Mexico for the winter.

I think they are the coolest looking sparrows with race-car yellow-stripe eyebrows. Besides the yellow over its eyes, the White-Throated Sparrow has…you guessed it: white feathers on its throat. While both male and female White-Throated Sparrows look similar, across both sexes there are some which have white stripes and others that have tan stripes on their heads. Based on what I have read, birds with white stripes seem to prefer mating with birds with tan stripes, but I am not sure what the deal is with that.

Hopefully after this little introduction you will start to spot the differences in Sparrows yourself!

A Family of Wrens

Taking Requests

It is almost impossible for me to express in words how happy I was when a pair of House Wrens decided to take up residence in my goose gourd house this summer. After a few years with no permanent residents I was becoming a bit discouraged with this DIY project. Generally speaking, I am extra excited about any birds in my yard that are not regular patrons to my feeders. Wrens, being insect eaters, definitely fall into that category. Add to that their lovely song and their quick and tiny bodies, they are both a pleasure to have around and a bit of a challenge to spot and photograph.

Considering how happy I was that they moved in, I am sure it will not come as a surprise that I was absolutely over the moon ecstatic when their nestlings hatched. I know that eggs and nestlings are the inevitable product of a nest, but the whole thing was still magical.

From a safe distance I peeked into the gourd a few times, and got a glimpse of one beak, then two. However, in late June I decided to sit in the yard from a position where I would have a good view of the mouth of the house. It turns out they had quadruplets! Very, very loud and hungry quadruplets.

If you are interested in making a gourd bird house, there is tons of information out there. Here is a website with some basic instructions: https://www.diynetwork.com/how-to/outdoors/structures/how-to-make-a-gourd-bird-house Be warned, this is not a quick project. The gourd needs to totally dry out before you can make the house. I purchased my gourd in early Autumn and didn’t drill the hole until the following February/March.

Mourning Dove

Despite my being relatively new to the hobby of bird watching, you might say birding generally is in my blood. Before I was born, my grandfather bred and raced pigeons. Despite not experiencing the pigeons first-hand, I have heard many stories and learned many details about pigeons throughout my life. As a result, I am very fond of pigeons, a bird so often written off and sometimes even referred to as winged-rats. I haven’t had a pigeon in my yard yet, which I must admit makes me a bit sad because I know they are in the neighborhood.

Given my fondness for pigeons, it shouldn’t be a surprise that I also like the Mourning Doves that visit my yard. Doves may appear a bit large and awkward as they waddle around, but the understated modesty of their fawn color and their size match their gentle demeanor. They are in fact very graceful in flight. And if you watch them closely in the right light, their feathers display an iridescent quality, so subtle it feels like a whispered secret. They also have the slightest hint of blue outlining their eyes which seems to imply there is more to them than you think at first glance.

The husky size of a Mourning Dove seems to make all the more sense when you learn that they eat almost 20% of their body fat, daily. They only eat grains, which is why they are a common visitor to feeders, including mine. However, again due to their larger physic, they are typically ground feeders, scrounging up the discarded seeds. A few times a dove has tried to land on one of my feeders, but their size and center of balance just won’t allow it. My current feeder pole has a round flat tray on one tier and the Dove’s seem to have claimed it as their own perch (better them than the squirrels).

Mourning Doves typically visit my feeders in groups, which is always guaranteed to add to the fun because inevitably one of the males decides to get his flirt on. Puffing up his chest and neck feathers, he begins chasing around one of the lady Doves, bobbing his head forward and back as he walks, in a very exaggerated manner. Pigeons have a similar behavior. I am not sure if they just like to play hard to get, but nine times out of ten the females run away, fly away and generally seem unimpressed.

Despite the evasive maneuvers I have witnessed, this behavior must impress the ladies eventually because Doves are fairly broody as birds go. While they only lay two eggs per nesting, they reproduce about three or four times a season. You may sometimes find a couple with more than two babies (squabs). This is the result of another Dove laying parasite eggs for a fellow Dove to raise.

Both of the parents share the responsibility of incubating and feeding the young. The babies are fed crop-milk which is even a bit more gross than it sounds. If you are interested, google it.

Mourning Doves are so common in North America they are commonly hunted. About 20 million are hunted annually. But have no fear, the population is not at risk. Besides being very fruitful in a breeding season, Mourning Doves also live a relatively long time, the oldest known Dove being 30 years old at the time of his demise.

Mourning Doves have the rare ability among birds to drink without lifting their heads

Red-Winged Blackbirds

If you have ever spent any time in a marsh or a meadow, chances are you have heard and seen a Red-Winged Blackbird. Besides having fairly bold personalities, Red-Winged Blackbirds are incredibly common year round in most of the continental United States. Seeing them is definitely a regular occurrence on my walks in many of the places I frequent, including the Celery Farms (Allendale), Mills Creek Marsh (Secaucus) and Richard W. DeKorte Park (Lyndhurst). Yet as common as they are in those places, I must live far enough from water that I have never seen one Red-Winged Blackbird at my feeder. In contrast, they do visit feeders (seed and suet) that I have the opportunity to view often in Upstate New York. The difference being that in New York, Lake Ontario is within full view and there are many farm fields and meadows in the vicinity.

The proximity to water is definitely key to the Red-Winged Blackbirds habitat. They usually build their nests near water and this habitat allows them a varied diet of bugs, seeds and very occasionally fruit. Their young are fed exclusively insects and, presumably due to the proximity of the nest to water, the young are able to swim short distances as young as 5-6 days old.

The Red-Winged Blackbird certainly has a presence. Strongly territorial, the males make themselves seen and heard by hanging to the top of tall marsh reeds or the exposed branches of trees. You can certainly not confuse a male Red-Winged Blackbird for anything else. As the name indicates, their totally black body is decorated with two stripes or epaulets on the wings. The higher stripe is red, with a thinner and more subtle stripe of yellow below the red. The females don’t resemble the males in any way, except their size and the shape of their beaks. The females have a brown-streaked body with a white line or “eyebrow” along their upper eye. Juveniles resemble their mother, but as they mature the males will begin to develop their red and yellow epaulets before their black feathers.

Their call, one part noise, one part music is synonymous with the marsh. You can listen for yourself, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Red-winged_Blackbird/sounds

Northern Cardinals

Despite their ubiquity, the appearance of a Northern Cardinal, especially the male Cardinal, still manages to wow and excite. Perhaps this is because most people can identify them with ease. Or is it because they stand out in a yard or the forest? Any way you try to spin it, the attraction of Cardinals is all about the red. Think about it, there is a reason traffic signs and lights are red. They grab our attention. So does the male Cardinal, often stealing the show from his fellow feeder friends.

Cardinals are very common in my yard, visiting my feeders for long periods, or frequent trips depending on the season. They also brave the winters of New Jersey and do not migrate. This bravery has inspired many a holiday card and we often associate Cardinals with winter and the holiday season. The female Cardinals are often overlooked because they lack the male’s attention-grabbing coloring. Besides her golden brown color, her overall appearance is very similar to the male, and if you look closely, you will see she has red highlights on her wings, crest, tail and over her eyes.

Observing them in my own garden, I would say they are more aggressive than average, but not always unfriendly to birds of other species. I have seen both the males and females chase off sparrows and other birds, but they usually don’t interfere with birds on the opposite side of the feeder. It seems to me they have a very large personal bubble, which the sparrows, being sparrows, don’t seem to understand in the slightest. When they are feeling aggressive you can usually tell, both the male and the female will perk up the crest at the top of their head in warning.

When it comes to their own species, it is a bit more complicated. During the breeding season (Spring and Summer) the males are territorial. I have often seen a pair of Cardinals (one male and one female) visit my yard and feeders together. Sometimes they are a bit more cautious, with one of the pair observing the yard while the other is at the feeder or on the ground. That being said, it isn’t uncommon for them to visit the feeders together. According to my field guides, in winter they live in larger flocks, but I have never seen more than a male and female pair in my yard at one time (not that I am outside observing in the winter nearly as much as the other three seasons).

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cardinals have at least sixteen different calls. I have observed at least two distinct calls. The more high- pitched version is usually what the male uses to attract a mate (in Spring) and they continue to use this call to communicate with each other throughout the summer. He has another call, which consists of an introductory call followed by short, quick whistles, often repeated with the shorter whistles increasing in number: one, then two, then three etc. This seems to be all about territory. Basically, “if you can hear this, you are way to close.” If you are good at whistling, you can imitate them, using the exact number of short whistles they use, right after them. Nothing like a good old whistle battle! Here are some examples of their songs and sounds: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Cardinal/sounds